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Also by David Morrell
First Blood (1972)
Last Reveille (1977)
The Totem (1979)
Blood Oath (1982)
The Hundred-Year Christmas (1983) *
The Brotherhood of the Rose (1984)
Rambo (First Blood Part II) (1985)
The Fraternity of the Stone (1985)
The League of Night and Fog (1987)
Rambo III (1988)
The Fifth Profession (1990)
The Covenant of the Flame (1991)
Assumed Identity (1993)
The Totem (complete and unaltered) (1994) *
John Barth: An Introduction (1976)
Copyright © 1994 by David Morrell
All rights reserved.
Warner Books, Inc.
Hachette Book Group
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New York, NY 10017
Visit our website at www.HachetteBookGroup.com
First eBook Edition: September 2009
The pistol, a Colt .45 semiautomatic, was capable of holding seven rounds in its magazine. But at the moment, it held only one, which Pittman fed into the firing chamber by pulling back the slide on top of the weapon. The well-oiled metal made a smooth snicking sound. Fourteen years earlier, when Pittman had written his first newspaper story, it had been about a retired policeman who had committed suicide. Pittman had never forgotten a conversation he had overheard, the respectful tones with which two patrolmen at a coffee machine in their precinct headquarters had referred to their former comrade's death.
"Poor bastard, couldn't stand retirement."
"Wife left him."
"Went out with style. Used his backup gun—a semiautomatic, Colt .45. Just one round in it."
The reference had puzzled Pittman until he did some research and learned that when fired, a semiautomatic pistol ejected the used empty cartridge and chambered a new one. The hammer recocked itself. This feature made rapid firing possible during an emergency. But the retired policeman who had shot himself had evidently considered it unethical to leave a loaded, cocked weapon next to his body after his suicide. There was no way to predict who would find his body. His landlady perhaps, or her ten-year-old son, who might foolishly pick up the gun. So, to avoid the danger that someone might later get hurt, the retired policeman had put only one round in the weapon. He knew that after the bullet was discharged, the slide would remain back, the firing chamber empty, the weapon completely safe.
"Went out with style."
Thus, Pittman, too, put only one round in his pistol. Weeks earlier, he'd applied for a permit to have a firearm in his apartment. This afternoon, after the authorities had determined that Pittman wasn't a felon, had never been in a mental institution because of violent behavior, et cetera, he had been allowed to go to the sporting-goods store and take possession of the pistol, a .45, the same as the retired policeman's. The clerk had asked how many boxes of ammunition he wanted. Pittman had responded that one would definitely be more than sufficient.
"I guess that means you're just going to keep it at home for protection, huh?"
"Yes, protection," Pittman had said.
(From nightmares, he had silently added.)
In his small third-floor apartment, with the door locked, he now sat at his narrow kitchen table, studied the cocked pistol, and listened to the din of evening traffic outside. The clock on the stove made a whirring sound, one of its mechanical numbers changing from 8:11 to 8:12. He heard dehumanized laughter from a television situation comedy vibrate through the wall behind him. He smelled fried onions, the odor seeping under his door from an apartment down the hall. He picked up the weapon.
Although he had never been trained to handle firearms, he had done his customary research. He had also read about the anatomy of the human skull, its soft spots. The temples, the hollows behind the ears, and the roof of the mouth were the most obviously vulnerable. Pittman had read about would-be suicides who had shot themselves in the head, only to give themselves a lobotomy instead of killing themselves. Although infrequent, it most often happened when the barrel was aimed toward the side of the forehead. Squeezing the trigger evidently caused the barrel to move slightly away from the temple. The bullet struck and was deflected by the thick plate of bone above the eyebrows. The would-be suicide became a vegetable.
Not me, Pittman thought. He meant to do this completely. The retired policeman whose example he followed had chosen to place the barrel of his gun inside his mouth—no way of flinching and moving the barrel away from its target—and he had chosen an extremely powerful handgun, a .45.
Pittman had gotten a drink at a bar on the way to the sporting-goods store and at two other bars on the way back home. He kept a bottle of Jack Daniel's in the cupboard next to the refrigerator, but he had not had anything to drink since he had locked his door behind him. He didn't want anyone to think, on the basis of a medical examiner's report, that drunkenness had led him to behave irrationally. More, he wanted to be clearheaded. He wanted to approach his last act with maximum focus.
A question of procedure occurred to him. How could he justify the mess he would make? By process of elimination, he had decided that his self-inflicted death would have to be by means of a bullet. But here at the kitchen table? His blood on the wood, the floor, the refrigerator, possibly the ceiling? Pittman shook his head, stood, held the .45 carefully, and walked toward the bathroom. He concentrated to maintain his balance, climbed into the bathtub, pulled the shower curtain closed, sat down in the cold white tub, and now he was ready.
The .45's gun oil smelled sweet as he brought the pistol toward his mouth. He opened his lips, felt a moment's revulsion, then placed the hard, greasy barrel within his mouth. The barrel was wider than he had anticipated. He had to stretch the corners of his mouth. The bitter-tasting metal scraped against his bottom front teeth, making him shiver.
He had thought about nothing except his suicide ever since he had applied for the permit to buy his gun. The waiting period had given him a chance to test his resolve. He had exhausted every argument for and against. He had been in such emotional agony that every portion of his brain screamed for release, for an end to his pain.
He tightened his finger on the trigger, but the trigger's resistance was more than he had expected. He had to squeeze harder.
The phone rang.
The phone rang again.
He tried to concentrate.
The phone rang a third time.
Pittman wanted desperately to ignore it, but as the phone persisted, he reluctantly realized that he would have to answer it. This decision had nothing to do with second thoughts, a need to give himself time to change his mind. Rather, it was a need to be thorough. A man of principle, he had promised himself that he would leave no loose ends—no debts unpaid, no favors unreturned, no slights unapologized. His will was in order, his slim assets going to his ex-wife, along with a note of explanation. His work obligations had ended yesterday, the conclusion of the two weeks' notice he had given his employer. He had even arranged for his funeral.
Then who would be phoning him? he wondered. A wrong number? A salesman? What if there was some final detail to which he had not attended? He had done his best to round off his life.
The phone kept ringing. He got out of the tub and went into the living room, grudgingly picking up the phone.
"Hello?" It was such an effort to speak.
"Matt, this is Burt." There wasn't any need for Burt to identify himself. His cigarette smoke-ravaged throat made his distinctive voice constantly hoarse and gravelly. "You took so long, I wasn't sure you were home."
"In that case, why did you let the phone keep ringing?"
"Your answering machine wasn't on," Burt said.
"Even when it's on, I'm sometimes home."
"Well, how would I know that if you never answered?"
Pittman felt detached from the conversation, as if drugged. "What do you want, Burt?"
"Sorry. Can't do it."
"Don't turn me down till you hear the favor."
"It doesn't make a… Burt, we're even. We don't owe each other anything. Let's leave it at that."
"You make it sound like just because you quit, we'll never see each other again. Hey, we'll keep owing each other plenty. Yesterday was your last day, so you probably haven't heard. They gave us the word this morning. The Chronicle will close its doors a week from Friday."
Burt's voice seemed to come from far away. Pittman felt groggy. "What?"
"We realized the newspaper was in bad shape. Not this bad, though. Bankrupt. Couldn't find a buyer. In-depth stories can't compete with TV news and USA Today. So the owners are liquidating. Nine days from now, after a hundred and thirty-eight years, the final issue hits the stands."
"I still don't…"
"I want you to come back to work, Matt. We were understaffed to begin with. Now… Look, I've spent thirty years of my life on the Chronicle. I don't want it to go out like it's garbage. Please, come back and give me a hand. It's just nine days, Matt. The obit department's as important as any department we've got. Next to the comics and the sports, that's what most readers turn to first. I don't have time to break in a new guy, and I couldn't find one anyhow, not when we're going to be out of business a week from Friday and some bastards are taking off work, looking for other jobs. Be a buddy, Matt. If not for me, for the paper. Hell, you worked here fourteen years. You must have some feeling for this place."
Pittman stared at the floor.
Pittman's muscles cramped from emotional pain.
"Matt? Are you there?"
Pittman studied his gun. "Your timing's lousy, Burt."
"But will you do it?"
"You don't know what you're asking."
"Sure I do. For you to be my friend."
"Damn you, Burt."
Pittman set down the phone. In anguish, he waited for it to ring again, but it stayed silent. He set down the pistol, went over to the bourbon bottle next to the refrigerator, and poured himself a drink. No ice, no water. He quickly drank it and poured himself another.
Under the circumstances, it struck Pittman as ironic that he worked in the obituary department of a dying newspaper. His desk, one of many, separated by waist-high partitions, was on the fourth floor, across from and midway between the elevator and the men's room. Although the Chronicle was understaffed, movement and noise surrounded Pittman, people walking, phones ringing, reporters answering, computer keyboards being tapped. Arts and Entertainment was behind him, Home Tips on his left, the Community Service Calendar on his right. He felt a gray haze distance him from everything.
"You look awful, Matt."
"You been sick?"
"What's happening to the Chronicle will make you even sicker."
"Yeah, so I heard."
The tubby man from Business placed both hands on the front of Pittman's desk and loomed down. "Maybe you also heard the damned pension might be in trouble. And… But how could you have heard? I forgot you quit two days ago. Saw it coming, huh? Gotta give you credit. Hope you made a deal, a few weeks' extra pay or…"
"No." Pittman cleared his throat. "Actually I didn't know anything about it."
"I just got tired."
The man looked blank. "Tired. What are you doing back here?"
Pittman was having grave difficulty concentrating. "Came back to help. Only a week from tomorrow. Everything will be over then." Already the time felt as if it would be an eternity.
"Well, if I were you and I had money in the bank—which I assume you must have or you wouldn't have quit—I wouldn't be wasting my time here. I'd be looking for another job."
Pittman didn't know what to say to that.
The tubby man leaned so close to Pittman's desk that his open sport coat covered the phone, which suddenly rang. In surprise, the man peered down toward the hidden source of the ringing. He straightened.
Pittman picked up the phone.
The call, from what sounded like a middle-aged woman, her voice strained with emotion, was about a seventy-five-year-old man (Pittman guessed it was the woman's father) who had died at his home.
Pittman reached for a form and wrote down the deceased's full name. "Did you wish to specify the cause of death?"
"Excuse me?" The woman sounded breathy, as if she'd been crying. "This has been such a strain. What do you mean 'specify'?"
"Did you wish to be exact and say why he died, ma'am? Perhaps you wish to say 'after a lengthy illness.' Or perhaps you don't wish to give any cause of death at all."
"He had cancer."
The statement struck Pittman as if an icy blade had knocked him off balance. Unprepared, he suddenly had mental images of Jeremy. Robust, with thick, long, windblown red hair, playing football. Frail, hairless, dead in an equipment-crammed room in a hospital intensive-care unit.
Pittman's throat constricted. "I lost a son to cancer. I'm sorry."
An awkward pause made the line seem to hum.
"A lengthy illness." the woman said. "Don't say he had cancer."
Other details: surviving relatives, former occupation, time and place for the funeral.
"Donations?" Pittman asked.
"For what? I don't understand."
"Sometimes close relatives of the deceased prefer that, instead of flowers, a donation be sent to a favorite charity. In this case, perhaps the Cancer Society."
"But wouldn't that be the same as saying he had cancer?"
"Yes, I suppose it would."
"A lengthy illness. My father died from a lengthy illness. I don't want to get involved in the rest of it. If I mention the Cancer Society, every charity in town will be calling me. Is that all you need? Don't forget to mention he belonged to the East Side senior citizens bowling team."
"I've got it," Pittman said.
"In that case…"
"I'll need your address."
"But I already told you where my father lived."
"No, I need your address, so the Chronicle can send you a statement for printing the obituary."
"You mean a bill?"
"The newspaper doesn't print obituaries as a community service?"
It had been a mistake, Pittman realized. He hadn't imagined the intense effort that it would take for him to go through the motions, to pretend to be committed to his job. Even the simplest gestures, picking up his phone, writing notes, required an exertion of will that left him as exhausted as the marathons he used to run before Jeremy became ill.
He took four more calls, each requiring a greater effort, each more draining. Death by car accident, drowning, hanging, and old age. Hanging had been a method Pittman had considered. When he'd been a reporter, research on one of his stories had taught him that in males, hanging was rumored to have erotic side effects, its victims producing erections. Hanging also had the advantage of being less messy than a death by gunshot. But the trouble was, it wasn't instantaneous. It didn't guarantee results. The rope might slip, or someone might find you in time to resuscitate you. Then you'd have to go through the pain all over again.
Glancing up, Pittman saw a stocky, craggy-faced man in his fifties with a brush cut and bushy eyebrows. The man had his navy blazer draped over his shoulder, his muscular upper arms bulging against his rolled-up shirt sleeves. His striped tie was loosened and the top shirt button was open, exposing his bull-like neck. He gave the impression that he was out of uniform, that he belonged in the military. But like Pittman, Burt Forsyth had never been in the military. Burt had worked for the Chronicle since he'd gotten out of college, eventually becoming its editor.
"Glad you could make it." Burt's voice was even more gravelly than it had sounded last night.
"You look beat."
"So people keep telling me," Pittman said.
"I'd have thought your day off would have made you look rested."
"Well, I had a lot of things to do."
"I bet." Burt's gaze was piercingly direct.
Does he suspect? Pittman wondered.
"Considering how busy you are, I appreciate your making time for the Chronicle."
"For you," Pittman said.
"The same thing."
When Jeremy had gotten sick, when Jeremy had died, when Pittman had collapsed, Burt Forsyth had always been there to provide reinforcement. "Need to go to the hospital to see your boy? Take all the time you need. Need to stay with him in intensive care? As long as you want. Your job? Don't worry about it. Your desk will be waiting for you." Burt had visited Jeremy in the hospital. Burt had arranged for the most valuable National Football League player to phone Jeremy. Burt had escorted Pittman to and from the mortuary. Burt had gotten drunk with Pittman. Although Pittman had tried to convince himself that he had paid back every debt, the truth was that Burt could never be repaid. Of all those who might have called last night, Burt was the one person Pittman could not refuse.
Burt studied him. "Got a minute?"
"My time is yours."
"In my office."
What now? Pittman thought. Is this where I get the lecture?
The Chronicle had a no smoking policy. Pittman could never understand how Burt managed constantly to have the recent smell of cigarette smoke on him. His office reeked of it, but there weren't any ashtrays, and there weren't any cigarette butts in the wastebasket. Besides, Burt's office had glass walls. If he was breaking the rule and smoking in here, the reporters at the desks outside would have seen him.
A big man, Burt eased himself into the swivel chair behind his desk. Wood creaked.
Pittman took a chair opposite the desk.
Burt studied him. "Been drinking too much?"
Pittman glanced away.
"I asked you a question," Burt said.
"If you were anybody else…"
"You'd tell me it was none of my business. But since I'm the one asking… Have you been drinking too much?"
"Depends," Pittman said.
"What you call too much."
Burt sighed. "I can tell this isn't going to be a productive conversation."
"Look, you asked for nine days. I'm giving them to you. But that doesn't mean you can run my life."
"What's left of it. You keep drinking as much as I think you have and you'll kill yourself."
"Now that's a thought," Pittman said.
"Drinking won't bring back Jeremy."
"That's another thought."
"And killing yourself won't bring him back, either."
Pittman looked away again.
"Besides, I'm not trying to run your life," Burt said. "It's your job I'm trying to run. I've got something different I want you to do, a special kind of obituary, and I want to make sure you're up to doing it. If you're not, just say so. I'll keep you on the desk, answering obit calls and filling out forms."
"Whatever you want."
"I didn't hear you."
"I came back to work because you asked. If there's something you need, I can do it. What kind of special obituary?"
"The subject isn't dead yet."
Pittman changed positions in the chair. Of course, it wasn't any surprise to him, although it generally was to what Pittman called "civilians," that some obituaries were written before the subject's death. Aging movie stars, for example. Celebrities of one sort or another who were mortally ailing or in extremely advanced years. Common sense dictated that since they were going to die soon and since they were famous, why not prepare the obituary sooner rather than later? On occasion, the subjects were remarkably resilient. Pittman knew of one case where a lengthy obituary had been written for an elderly comedian—twenty years earlier—and the comedian in his nineties was still going strong.
But Pittman judged from Burt's somber expression that he hadn't been summoned here just to write something as ephemeral as an obituary for a not-yet-dead movie star. Burt's brows were so thick, they made his eyes seem hooded—dark, intense.
"All right." Pittman gestured. "The subject isn't dead yet."
"But evidently you're convinced that he or she will be dead within nine days."
Burt's expression didn't change.
"Otherwise, the obituary won't be any good," Pittman said, "because the Chronicle will be dead a week from tomorrow, and I never heard of other newspapers buying freelance obituaries."
"It's my gift to you."
"Gosh. I don't know what to say. How generous."
"You're not fooling anybody," Burt said. "You think I haven't figured out what you're planning to do?"
Pittman showed no reaction.
"Ellen phoned yesterday," Burt said.
Pittman felt sudden heat in his stomach, but he didn't allow himself to show any reaction to that either, to the mention of his ex-wife.
"She says you've been acting strangely," Burt said. "Not that I need her to tell me. I've got eyes. In fact, anybody who thinks of you as a friend has noticed. You've been going around making a point of paying back favors, money you borrowed, whatever. You've been apologizing for any harm you caused, and I know it's not because you're cleaning house as part of joining AA, not the way you've been drinking. That car accident three weeks ago. Three A.M. A deserted road in Jersey. A bridge abutment. What the hell were you doing out driving at that hour? And even as drunk as you were, I don't see how you couldn't have avoided that big an obstacle. You meant to hit it, and the only reason you didn't die is that your body was so loose from the booze, you bounced like a rag doll when you were thrown from the car."
Pittman touched a still-healing gash on the back of his hand but didn't say anything.
"Don't you want to know what Ellen wanted?" Burt asked.
Pittman stared at the floor.
"Come on," Burt demanded. "Quit acting like you're already dead."
"I made a mistake."
"Coming back to work. I made a mistake." Pittman stood.
"Don't," Burt said. "Let me finish."
A reporter appeared in the doorway.
"In a minute," Burt said.
The reporter assessed the two men, nodded somberly, and went away. Other reporters, seated at their desks, were glancing toward the glass walls of Burt's office. Phones rang.
"What Ellen wanted was to tell you she was sorry," Burt said. "She wants you to call her."
"Tell me about this obituary."
"Give her a chance."
"Our son died. Then our marriage died. There's plenty to be sorry about. But I don't want to talk about it. I'm through talking about it. Nine—correction: Since I promised last night, if we count today, it's eight more days, Burt. That's all the time I'm willing to give you. Then we're even. Tell me about the obituary."
- On Sale
- Sep 22, 1994
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Grand Central Publishing